Albert Mathiez 1920

Bolshevism and Jacobinism

Source: Le Bolchevisme et le Jacobinisme. Paris, Librairie du Parti Socialiste et de l’Humanité. 1920;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2010.

The similarities between Jacobinism (by which I mean the government of the Montagnards between June 1793 and July 1794) and Bolshevism are not in the least factitious, since Lenin himself spoke of it in his speeches [1] and he recently had a statue of Robespierre raised. Lenin, like all the Russian socialists, is nourished by the history of our great revolution, is inspired by its example, and puts it into practice while adapting them to his country and the circumstances.

I would like to demonstrate by a brief analysis that the analogies between the methods of the Bolshevists and those of the Montagnards are not only apparent, but that there exist close ties and a logical kinship between them.

Jacobinism and Bolshevism are both dictatorships, born of civil and foreign war; two class dictatorships operating by the same methods: terror, requisition, and taxes, and proposing as a final outcome the same goal, the transformation of society. And not only of Russian or French society, but of universal society.

Both dictatorships grew out of defeat and were imposed by riots. It was the treason of Dumouriez, the disasters of Belgium, the retreat of the army on all fronts that allowed the Montagnards to crush the Girondins, held responsible by the events in Paris on May 31 and June 2, 1793. It was the failure of Kerensky’s offensive of July 1917 followed by Kornilov’s adventure that allowed the Soviet uprising of October 1917 in Petrograd to succeed. There is an apparent difference here. The Montagnards seized power in order to intensify the war and gain victory. On the contrary, the Bolshevists looked on war or peace as means of saving the revolution. In the face of the exhaustion of Russia and the general lassitude Lenin convinced himself that peace was a necessary “respite” in order to consolidate the results of his coup de force. On the contrary Robespierre, feeling the patriotism of the country and knowing its resources, believed that the salvation of the revolution was invincibly tied to immediate victory on the battlefield. By opposite paths the two dictatorships pursued the triumph of their party and the realization of their ideal. As soon as his government is a bit more stable Lenin will form the Red Army and will return to the offensive.

Both dictatorships base themselves on the lower classes but are led by renegades from the former ruling classes.

For the most part the people’s commissars are not the vile adventurers that they bought-off press has depicted. Vladimir Ulianov, called Lenin is, like Lunacharsky, the son of a state councilor with the rank of an Excellency. Chicherin, the commissar for foreign affairs is, like them, of noble birth. Bronstein, aliasTrotsky, is the son of an homme de letters. Zinoviev and Kamenev are bourgeois who have passed though the universities. Uritzky is and engineer, Rykov a certified translator of foreign languages, Mme Kollontai the wife of a colonel. Yoffe and Sukolnikov enjoy a considerable fortune.

In the same way Maximilien Robespierre belonged to a family of the robe, the chevalier de Saint Just to a family of the sword, Hérault de Séchelles to the old nobility, and Carnot, Couthon, Le Bas, the two Prieurs, and Robert Lindet to the bourgeoisie.

The origin and the strength of both dictatorships was drawn from the population of the cities, and in particular the capital. The Montagnard’ fortress was in Paris in the popular sections composed of artisans; the Bolshevists recruit their Red Guard from among the workers in the factories of Petrograd.

The peasantry who, in the France of 1793 as in the Russia of today, form the majority, are carried along by the advantages that the Bolshevists and the Montagnards were able to guarantee them. After their victory the Montagnards extirpated the last roots of feudalism by abolishing seigniorial charges based on ancient rights that were still in place. They laid hands on the properties of émigrés, a rich prey that served as their war treasury. The peasant who purchased noble or ecclesiastical land joined their cause. He was attached to Jacobinism by the strong ties of personal interest. For him the defeat of the revolution would mean spoliation and ruin.

In the same way the Bolsheviks enthroned themselves by tossing to the mouzhiks on the very night of October 25 the land of monasteries and large holdings. These confiscated domains, which they have administered by cantonal committees, are the formidable reserve that guarantees them the fidelity of the masses, while at the same time they facilitate the supplying of their supporters in the cities.

The two dictatorships, the French and the Russian, are eminently realistic. In the interests of public safety they don’t hesitate to violate the very principles they proclaim. Robespierre and Lenin justify terror by the needs of internal and external struggle. Both proclaim they will end it after victory. “Under the constitutional regime,” said Robespierre, “it suffices to protect individuals against the abuses of the public power. Under the revolutionary regime the public power itself is forced to defend itself against all the forces that attack it."( 5 Nivôse). Saint Just more crudely added: “What constitutes a republic is the total destruction of everything opposed to it” (8 Ventôse). Like an echo Lenin repeats, “It would be the greatest stupidity and the most absurd utopia to suppose that the passage from capitalism to socialism would be possible without constraint and dictatorship” (May 28, 1917). “It is impossible,” he continued, “to defeat and extirpate capitalism without the pitiless repression of the resistance of the exploiters, who cannot accept being suddenly deprived of their fortune, of their advantages in organization and knowledge, and who over a long period of time will consequently and inevitably attempt to shake off the domination of the poor.”

Robespierre and Lenin demanded the abolition of the death penalty. Once in power they made the ultimate penalty a method of governing. They had demanded the freedom of the press and they suppressed opposition newspapers.

In short, the ends justify the means and absolve all contradictions. In both cases the end is the happiness of the masses. Said Robespierre, “We desire an order of things where all low and cruel passions are enchained and where all beneficent and generous passions are awakened by the laws... where the fatherland ensures the welfare of every individual... where commerce is the source of public wealth and not just the monstrous opulence of a few houses” (18 Pluviôse). Saint Just added: “Our goal is to establish a sincere government that will render the people happy” (8 Ventôse). Trotsky said on the evening of October 25: “We are going to found a power that will propose no other goal than that of satisfying the needs of the soldiers, workers, and peasants. The state must be an instrument of the liberation of the masses from all forms of slavery.”

Let it not be objected that Robespierre respected private property while Lenin denied it. The difference in time periods explains the differences in theories and solutions, but the basis of things remains identical. In any event, Lenin did not suppress property. His measures are every bit as opportunistic as those of the Montagnards. They respond to the same necessities. There is no difference in nature between them.

The Bolshevists have nationalized the banks, inventoried the safes of private individuals, placed their contents in an account at the state bank, and fixed the amount allowed to be withdrawn, but they have not suppressed private property. The Jacobins didn’t hesitate to requisition bankers, to place a seal on their strongboxes, to subject them to strict rules, to close the stock exchange, etc. A decree of the Committee of Public Safety dated 23 Ventôse required the businessmen of Bourdeaux to provide an overseas draft of 20 million and to export a like amount of merchandise. This was not an exceptional act. We know that Robespierre subordinated property to the social interest and that he defined it as “the portion of property guaranteed by the law.”

The Bolshevists have laid hands on factories, which they administer by means of committees elected by the workers. The Jacobins preceded them on this road by requisitioning for purposes of war production many forges and workshops more or less administered by government controlled bodies.

The Bolshevists control agricultural production as they do industrial production. In each district they’ve organized committees for the inventorying, requisition, and distribution of merchandise that are connected to common centers: textile centers, steel producing centers, etc.

In order to apply their law of the maximum the Montagnards had already created in Paris the subsistence commission, the arms and powder commission, the transport commission, etc., which, under the orders of the Committee of Public Safety, tallied, distributed, and taxed goods of all natures by means of countless agents disseminated throughout France and supported by local committees.

It would be a mistake to think that the Bolshevist committees that administer factories or control agricultural production are sovereign. At present the Soviet Republic is as centralized and bureaucratic as the Jacobin republic was. The agrarian committees that administer the lands confiscated from large landowners [2] are unquestionably elected, but alongside them central power is represented by commissars armed with plenary powers to ensure subordination to the center. Similarly the committees elected by factory workers do not administer the enterprise, which most often remains confided to the former boss, become an agent of the center. Lenin doesn’t want proletarian power to remain in a “gelatinous state.” He strives to end disorganization and he practices a policy of the iron fist. “Any individual,” he says, “who violates labor discipline, in any enterprise at all, in no matter what affair, is to be brought before a tribunal and pitilessly punished.” The revolutionary tribunals of Soviet Russia, like those of Montagnard France, punish theft, sabotage, fraud, and violations of tax and inventory laws as counter-revolutionary crimes. An already old decree on the administration of railroads confides the administration of the networks to commissars with powers as extensive as those with which the proconsuls of the Convention were invested.

Robespierre had said that “the revolutionary government has nothing in common with anarchy. On the contrary its goal is to suppress it in order to ensure and solidify the reign of law” (25 Nivôse). Lenin is no more tender than he towards disorder: “If we aren’t anarchists we must accept the necessity for a state, i.e., of constraint, for the transitional phase from capitalism to socialism. Every large technical industry demands the most absolute unity of will and the most severe leadership of the work of hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of men. How can the most severe unity of will be ensured? By the submission of these thousands of wills to the will of only one” (May 28, 1918). He continues: “We don’t need any hysterical impulses. We need the cadenced march of the iron battalions of the proletariat.”

I read somewhere that Lenin was inspired by the methods of the Hébertists. All his acts and words protest against such a judgment. Like Robespierre he claims to be warding off the two excesses into which the revolution might fall, moderation and exaggeration. He declares in the already quoted speech that compromises are needed before reaching the communist order. In this way the decree on cooperative societies that he published in the spring of 1918 is a compromise elaborated between the representatives of bourgeois cooperatives and workers cooperatives. “In concluding such a compromise with the bourgeois cooperatives the Soviet power concretely determined its tactical problems and the methods of action particular to the given phase of development. In guiding and utilizing the bourgeois elements by having them make certain partial concessions we create the necessary conditions for an advance that is slower than we at first thought, but one that is more solid, with firmer guarantees for the base and the lines of communication, with better fortifications for the positions already taken.” This was precisely Robespierre’s tactics, as he also tried to rally and reassure the small merchants and landowners.

When Lenin and Trotsky created a new army after brest-Litovsk, from which they excluded politically doubtful elements, here too they did nothing but follow the teachings of Jacobinism. From the time of the Constituent Assembly Robespierre had proposed to dismiss the royal army in order to recreate it anew in order in this way to purge it of its leadership, which was full of nobles. His proposal was rejected, but the noble officers eliminated themselves through emigration and the sought for result was obtained.

No one professed distrust of militarism more than Robespierre or exercised a more suspicious surveillance over generals. He had predicted that the war would lead to the dictatorship of the sword, and yet it was the same Robespierre who gave this definition of military discipline: “Discipline is the soul of armies; discipline can supplement numbers, but numbers cannot supplement discipline. Without discipline there is no army, just an assembly of men without unity, without concert who cannot effectively lead their forces towards a common goal, like a body which has been abandoned by the life principle or a machine whose gears are broken.” The Committee of Public Safety, while according volunteers the right to elect their leaders by an ingenious graduated system, in practice arranged it so that strict obedience was imposed. The people’s commissars have done the same. In the Red Army the election of leaders has even been suppressed (April 23, 1918). In “Le Correspondent” of May 25, 1919 I read that this army today is subject to iron discipline.

It might be said in response to what I’ve said that the Montagnard dictatorship was a legal dictatorship, an organ of the National Convention, itself the expression of the country’s will, while the Bolshevist dictatorship is sullied by a fundamental illegality. It dissolved the Constituent Assembly and only maintains itself through force.

The difference between the two regimes shouldn’t be exaggerated. The Convention was elected during the troubled period of the September massacres. Most of the electoral assemblies that elected deputies were under the law of the popular clubs. Voting was carried out by voice vote. It’s a well-known fact that the Jacobins and their supporters were virtually the only ones to vote. But even more it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Montagnard dictatorship was established by the riot of June 2, 1793 that mutilated the Convention through the exclusion of the Girondin leaders, who were soon to be sent to the guillotine. The arrest of the seventy-three Girondins who protested against June 2 was enough to change the majority. The Montagnards governed by means of a purged Assembly. The Bolshevists preferred dissolving to mutilating. Where is legality in all this?

The Bolshevists replaced the Constituent by the Congress of Soviets. It’s as if the Committee of Public Safety had replaced the Convention with the Jacobin Society. The Soviets deprived a large category of citizens of the right to vote: monks, idlers, bosses, etc. Before them the Jacobins of the revolutionary committees drew up lists of suspects. The monarchical constitution of 1791 already deprived of their civil rights all those who wouldn’t take the civic oath. The Bolshevists have simply perfected the Jacobin methods.

The Montagnards had already established the system of food cards, but they hadn’t thought to use them as a political instrument. The Bolshevists, more ingenious than them, divided the population into four categories for the right to provisions. Suspects receive only half or a quarter rations. An effective and terrible means of developing a client base!

Since the wealthy farmers were reluctant to carry out the requisitions, in order to overcome their resistance the Bolshevists established Commissions of Poverty made up of the indigent and charged with carrying out measures to ensure provisioning. The Jacobins didn’t go this far, but they filled the revolutionary committees charged with overseeing the application of the maximum with Sans Culottes.

It would be vain to oppose the Jacobin’s individualism to the Bolshevists communism. The Jacobins proclaimed themselves the defenders of the right of property. They punished those who preached the “agrarian law,” i.e., the communists, with death. But in fact they confiscated, they expropriated, and they requisitioned. On the contrary, the Bolshevists profess communism and announce the imminent abolition of individual property, but in fact they allow it to survive.

In any event the Jacobins always placed the rights of society over those of the individual, and in this they are like the Bolshevists. Didn’t Saint-Just propose on 8 Ventôse to confiscate the property of all adversaries of the regime? “The revolution leads us to recognize the principle that he who has shown himself to be the enemy of his country cannot be a landowner here.” And on the motion the Convention voted this decree: “The property of patriots is inviolable and sacred. The goods of those individuals recognized as enemies of the revolution will be seized to the profit of the Republic. These individuals shall be detained until peace and then banished in perpetuity.” Violating property in this way was doubtless a form of recognizing it, but it means making property a privilege of civic spirit.

When the Bolshevists seize vacant lodgings in order to house the indigent in them, when they make the bourgeois perform forced labor, they remain more faithful to the Jacobin precedent than we imagine. Saint-Just said: “Do not allow there to be a single unfortunate or a single poor man in the state. It is only thus that you will have made a true revolution, a true republic... Force everyone to do something, to take up a profession useful to society... In the fatherland what rights do they have who do nothing?” (8 Ventôse). Their acts followed their words when they weren’t in advance of them. In many departments idlers were drafted for the production of saltpeter, for the gathering of wood for the fabrication of potassium, for harvests, and for the repair of roads.

The politicians of today, who have set themselves up as the heirs of Jacobinism, brag of their patriotism, which they oppose to the defeatism and internationalism of the Bolshevists. The opposition is entirely superficial and doesn’t stand up to examination.

To be sure, the Montagnards dedicated themselves with a sublime ardor to the task of national defense. Robespierre in particular can be taken for a chauvinist when we see him ceaselessly denounce foreigners taking refuge in France who he suspected, not without reason, of serving as enemy spies. One day he even cast a famous anathema on the English people from the tribune of the Jacobin club. But Robespierre didn’t make any distinction between the cause of France and that of the Revolution, and the triumph of our armies was for him the guarantee of and the prelude to the triumph of freedom around the world. He never repudiated the doctrine of the brotherhood of man. He wanted to have inscribed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1793 the following articles:

  1. Men of all countries are brothers and as far as is possible the different peoples should mutually assist each other as if they were citizens of the same state.
  2. Whoever oppresses one nation declares himself the enemy of all.
  3. Those who make war on a people to stop the progress of freedom and annihilate the rights of man should be pursued by all not as ordinary enemies, but as rebellious enemies and brigands.
  4. Kings, aristocrats, and tyrants, whatever they might be, are slaves in revolt against the sovereign of earth, which is humankind, and against the legislator of the universe, which is nature.

(April 24, 1793)

Robespierre never renounced this class internationalism that Lenin would subscribe to. When the Dantonists, in their haste to make peace, proposed abandoning to their fate the inhabitants of the Rhine, the Belgians, the Savoyards, and the Niçois – all the peoples who had believed in our promises, Robespierre violently rose up against their defeatist proposal. If he proclaimed his hatred for the English it was because he hated what there was in them of slaves too docile to their masters. “There is something more contemptible still than a tyrant, and that is a slave!... It’s not for us to pay the costs of the English revolution. Let this people free itself and we will render it all our esteem and friendship” (11 Pluviôse). Attributing to Robespierre the mentality of the imperialists of today means strangely misunderstanding him.

Despite appearances the Jacobins and the Bolshevists do not have very different concepts of international relations. M. Antonelli said in a recent book that “the Bolshevists conceive of the rights of peoples as the right of the proletarian classes to organize themselves. They are led by the logic of their doctrine of proletarian interventionism to intervene wherever the proletarian cause seems to be in peril...Bolshevist interventionism is analogous to the republican interventionism of the French Revolution. But it is even more dangerous: it doesn’t take into account the moral and ethnic factors.”

In fact, it is certain that the Bolshevists only considered the peace of Brest-Litovsk a truce. As soon as they could they took up arms again to free the proletarians of Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine, and along with this supported Spartakism and the Hungarian revolution. Their proselytism as much as their repudiation of the financial commitments of tsarism explains the clamor of hostility that greets their name in the countries that remain governed in the former style. The Jacobins caused the same fears and the same anger. At a distance of 125 years it would be a game both amusing and instructive to bring together and compare the judgments of the Jacobins and Bolshevists by the rulers and journalists charged with stopping the contagion.

It is misleading or people attempt to mislead when they represent the Bolshevist government, after the Jacobin government, as an artificial construction, issued through prikazes and decrees from the minds of a few crackpots and ambitious men. The reality is completely different. The Bolshevists did not create the soviets, which existed before they came to power. The Russian soldiers didn’t wait for Brest-Litovsk to make peace with Germany. The mouzhiks didn’t wait for the prikaze of October 25, 1917 to take ownership of the lands of monks and landlords. In the factories the workers had already organized committees of exploitation before Lenin succeeded in his coup de force.

The people’s commissars had to bring order out of disorder. They regulated the previous state of affairs by working at giving it a legal foundation. “Sometimes,” says M. Antonelli, “their intervention was in the direction of moderation, which elevated certain elements of the working class and peasant population.”

There is yet one more point of resemblance with Jacobinism. Most of the great revolutionary measures of the year II were not the result of an initiative by the Committee of Public Safety or even the deputies of the Convention. They were imposed on them under the pressure of the clubs. The maximum, that is the taxation of all basic products, was loudly called for by the sections before being inscribed in the law. The Montagnards at first strove to resist a measure they judged dangerous. The levée en masse or the first requisition, the revolutionary army charged with applying the laws on subsistence goods and dechristianization were the work of the leaders of the clubs and local administrations before being adopted and legalized by the Convention.

Jacobins and Bolshevists are carried along by a current stronger than themselves. These dictators obey their troops in order to be able to command them.

Why be surprised then that they run up against the same obstacles and are exposed to the same dangers?

For the Bolshevists the dictatorship of the proletariat is nothing but a step on way to communism; for many of their supporters it is a goal. From the top to the bottom of the scale the government of the Soviets runs up against the egoism of those it rules. The Russian peasant, like the French peasant of the year II, wants to keep his harvest. It is only with difficulty that he gives it up in exchange for depreciated paper money. They must sometimes resort to force to have him open the doors of his storehouse. The worker considers the factory his thing. He works as little as possible. He interprets the revolution as the right to be lazy. The bureaucrats who inventory, requisition, and parcel out goods traffic in their functions. The class dictatorship in practice is reduced to a vast pillaging operation by subaltern petty tyrants. Lenin’s chinovniks are as bad as those of Nicolas II.

Lenin knows this and attempts to react vigorously. In order to set an example thieves caught in the act during the revolution of October 25 were executed on the spot. Lenin isn’t far from saying that the motor force of the new regime must be virtue, in other words, the sacrifice of private interest to public interest. He insists on the absolute need to raise production by disciplining labor in order to intensify it. “The Russian,” he says, “is a poor worker when compared with the citizens of the advanced nations. Learning to work is the problem that Soviet power must pose in all its grandeur to the people.” And he doesn’t hesitate to advocate piece work and even the application of the Taylor system, which western unionists consider a form of slavery. He realizes that the problems of production and distribution cannot be resolved by administrative measures alone, but that they are to a certain extent of a moral order. Thus he has organized a vast organizational and educational propaganda program by means of newspapers and conferences at the Socialist Academy. He hopes in this way to elevate the cultural level of the masses and to make the revolution in their spirits. “The model communes must and will serve as educators, as professors, as support for the backward communes. The press must serve as an instrument in the building of socialism, making known in all their details the success of the model communes, studying the reasons for their success, the processes of their domestic economy, while placing on a black list those of communes that stubbornly preserve the traditions of capitalism, that is, of anarchy, laziness, disorder, and speculation.”

Here again the Bolshevists imitate the Jacobins, who placed morality on the order of the day and strove to educate the masses and put a brake on egoism by an entire system closely tied to civic festivals and social institutions, including an ad hoc periodical, the “Collection of Heroic and Civic Actions” was the organ. Like the Jacobins the Bolsheviks broke with the church, which they separated from the state. Until now they haven’t felt the need, like their predecessors, to replace the old cult by a new one adapted to their politics, but they are already on the road that leads there.

Lenin is already worried about the gradual invasion of the soviets by parliamentarism. “This must be fought against by using all the members of the soviets as active participants in the administration.” He doesn’t want the rule of the phrasemonger any more than he wants the rule of bureaucrats. Before him Saint-Just denounced the same peril: “The city is virtually usurped by the functionaries. In the assemblies they dispose of votes and jobs, in the popular societies of opinion. All of them procure independence and the most absolute power for themselves under the pretext of acting in a revolutionary way, as if the revolutionary power resided in them” (8 Ventôse) .

Nevertheless, the moist serious dangers that threaten the Soviet government are perhaps not those from within. Sabotage, attacks, jacqueries, and revolts are less formidable than the blockade and foreign war. The relationship between them is in any case obvious.

The Montagnards of the year II had to confront the same situation. They handled it through military victory. “Victory of Death” was their motto. The Bolshevists, borne to power by the exhaustion and lassitude of a people anxious for peace, at first surrendered to the torrent. Their defeatism was a tactic, but it was not only that. In order to defend their compromised revolution, to save their heads, they were forced to go back to war. The future of Bolshevism will be determined on the battlefield, as was the fate of Jacobinism.

After victory the Jacobins split, and their splits led to their defeat. The army became the arbiter of their quarrels and the Republic was finally confiscated by a victorious general.

Is it possible that Bolshevism will suffer the same fate? We’ll soon know if its armies are capable of fending off the external perils and triumph over the latest revolts. Will Trotsky and Lenin remain united? Will a Russian 9 Thermidor follow the May 31 of October 25, and will an 18 Brumaire successfully carried out by a more adroit Kornilov end in tragedy? These are the secrets held by the morrow.

History never repeats itself exactly. But the resemblances our analysis has brought out between the great crises of 1793 and 1917 are neither superficial nor fortuitous. The Russian revolutionaries willingly and knowingly imitate the French revolutionaries. They are animated by the same spirit. They move about amidst the same problems in an analogous atmosphere. The times are different. Civilization has advanced over the past century and a quarter. But Russia owes more to its backwards state than is ordinarily believed for its resemblance to the agricultural and illiterate France of the end of the 18th century.

It will be interesting to observe and will be rich matter for reflection to see if the two revolutions follow each other at the same cadence up to the end.

1. “If we take the scale of western revolutions, we are approximately at the level of what was reached in 1793 and 1870.” (Lenin’s speech of May 28, 1918)

2. “The lands of Cossacks and simple soldiers and peasants cannot be confiscated.” (Decree of October 26, 1917)